Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conan the Barbarian: a bit of a ramble

While playing age of Conan, I have found myself rereading a lot of the original Conan short stories and thinking about how well the game and the movie that made Arnie famous reflect their source material. I'll get to the game in my next post, I hope that you will forgive a brief digression.

Conan in Literature

The original short stories were written by Robert E. Howard. Until very recently they were available mainly through a series of short story collections edited by L. Sprague De Camp. It turns out that he took some liberties with the source material.

In the original collections, you can tell a huge difference between the stories written by L. Sprague De Camp or Lin Carter and the ones that Howard wrote himself. Howard was a gifted storyteller that used terse and engaging prose. His stories also tend to twist and turn, you are never quite sure where they are going. De Camp on the other hand, is just a writer. The stories he wrote to fill out Conan's back story in between Howard's stories are certainly competent (I'd say De Camp about on par with R. A. Salvatore), but rarely as engaging as the material he seeks to mimic. If you prefer to stick to the real deal, there are some recent collections that reprint the Howard short stories unedited.

However, if you don't read any of De Camp's stories, you will miss out on the literary origin of a lot of minor fantasy tropes. For example, the numerous jelly and slime monsters of the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game (which from thence went on to innumerable PC and console RPGs) seem directly inspired by a creature that appears in De Camp's "The Curse of the Monolith." They even share a vulnerability to fire. In another example, several of the scenes from the Conan movies were taken from De Camp stories rather than Howard stories. De Camp may not have been the caliber of writer that Howard was, but a lot of his ideas stuck with us.

Conan the Barbarian, the Movie

My first exposure to Conan was in the movie with Arnie. I still think it's a fantastic movie. Though very little that happens in the movie occurs in any of the original short stories, I think the movie does a good job of evoking the feel of the source material. And this sets up one of my major criteria for whether an adaptation from one medium to another is competent. The changing moods of the movie, the way that the music plays off of the cinematography, and the quality of the dialogue still hold up well nearly 30 years after the movie came out. The sequel slightly bit, but is still entertaining in a "Remember the 80s?" sort of way.


  1. I hate to admit that the closest I've come to the REH stories is the current Dark Horse comics series. Which I stopped reading after Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord left. Nevertheless, that did leave me intrigued about the original stories. Someday....

  2. Around Christmas time I found a nice softcover complete collection of the Conan stories, something I wished I had purchased when I saw it.

    But just like I have a backlog of games, I have an even larger backlog of books to read.